How do leading companies win by changing the game? Established businesses like Amazon, Starbucks, and Tesla, and emerging players like Peloton, Halo Top, and Seedlip have a secret system for winning. These and other transcender companies, they don’t play the traditional brand game that every other company plays. They create their own game and force competitors to play by their rules. In his new book, Brands Don’t Win, Stan Bernard reveals the proven, practical, three-step transcender system that leading companies use to transcend their rivals and own their markets.
Hey Listeners, my name is Drew Appelbaum and I’m excited to be here today with Stan Bernard, author of Brands Don’t Win. Stan, thank you for joining, welcome to The Author Hour Podcast.
Stan Bernard: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Drew Appelbaum: Let’s kick this off. Can you give us a brief rundown of your professional background?
Stan Bernard: Absolutely. I’m a physician, I actually decided in med school after I finished up, got licensed, and was positioned to move on to the business side. Got my MBA from the Wharton School of Business, and majored in marketing. From there, I worked for Bristol-Myers Squibb Pharmaceuticals. Worked for A.T. Kearney as a principal in their consulting division and then I started my own firm, Bernard Associates in 1999. Bernard Associates is a global competition consulting firm, we are all about helping clients win. That’s what we do.
I also have had the opportunity to teach marketing at the Wharton School of Business. I taught the pharmaceutical management course for 14 years at the Wharton School of Business and as a senior fellow there, had a number of other experiences and I’ve had the opportunity to consult with over 150 companies across six continents, involving over 60 countries.
Drew Appelbaum: Why was now the time to share these stories in the book? You’ve clearly been in the industry for a while, did you have an “Aha!” moment? Was there something inspiring for you out there or did enough people come up to you and say, “Stan, you got to write this down?”
Stan Bernard: My “Aha!” moment was COVID. COVID actually gave me the opportunity and time to write the book. I had been wanting to write the book for a number of years, I had many of my business professionals and executives— who have been through my transcender workshops, speaking engagements, war games— request for me to write the book but I just really never had time. I was so busy working with clients and helping them win but COVID actually, for about six months, as many people experienced, slowed down my business and gave me the opportunity to write the book. So, there’s silver linings in everything.
Drew Appelbaum: When you said, “Okay, I’m going to take this time where I have a little bit of downtime and I’m going to write this book,” did you have an outline of the book in your head— but then by diving into some of the studies you do in the book, you come to some major breakthroughs or learnings, you discover things you didn’t know beforehand while you were writing the book?
Stan Bernard: I did. I found that first of all, that by writing this book, it helped clarify— what I call— transcender system. I have created a winning system, which I call the transcender system because it allows companies to rise above the competitive fray and play their own game in order to win. But what I realized in writing the book was that it’s not just that I created a new system for winning, but it also helped me understand that brands don’t win.
Let me explain what I mean by that. Historically, virtually, every company on the planet, whether you’re offering products, services, technologies, whatever offering you are selling have used one approach to competing and that is branding. Companies create a brand and then differentiate their brand. They typically use extensive promotions, advertising, sometimes sales forces, account execs to do that, that is really how every company on the planet, with a few exceptions, has competed. In fact, branding goes back to the ancient Greeks. Branding is ancient. 3,000 years ago, the Greeks were using branding to win, that is a different shading of brand.
What I realized in writing the book was that I could make it very clear to the readers as well as to my attendees in my various speaking engagements and seminars that there is more than one way to compete. People should not be brand-washed, thinking that there’s only one way in the world to compete, which is branding.
What I did is I created a system over the last four decades called a transcender system, which allows companies to create their own game, play their own game; a game only they can win. The book and the time that I had to really think about it made me not only further appreciate how powerful the transcender system is for helping companies and their products win but also, how obsolete, archaic, and antiquated the branding system is. I mean, branding itself is over 4,000 years old. Think about that.
Most people do not use 8-track tapes. Most people no longer use rotary dial phones and they’re only 50 years old. Yet, the vast majority of companies today still use branding, only one type of competitive approach for competing. What that means is, virtually, every company’s playing brand checkers. When every company’s playing the same game, and specifically a simple game such as checkers, it’s very difficult to win.
What I do in Brands Don’t Win is I explain, you can break out of the brand jail, you can get rid of the brand cuffs, you can play your own game by using the transcender system to create a game only your company can win and force your competitors to respond to you.
The Transcender System
Drew Appelbaum: Speaking of the transcender system, it’s a three-step system. Can you talk about it? Maybe dig into it a little more and talk about those steps?
Stan Bernard: The transcender system is all about one thing and that’s helping companies win. In order to help business professionals and business executives use the transcender system, I’ve made it very simple. It’s three steps, three proven and practical steps for winning.
The first step is to create the agenda, play your game. What exactly do I mean by “create the agenda”? Well, transcender companies do not win with branding, they win with a campaign agenda. Very similar to politicians, particularly, US Presidents. For instance, Senator Obama in 2008 when he was running for president for the first time, he had a one-word campaign agenda which was, “Change”. He talked all about change, change, change. Change in Iraqi war policy, change in healthcare policy, et cetera. He led with a campaign agenda, one word, “Change” and then he followed with the brand. He was the change candidate.
Similarly, in 2016, Donald Trump, when he was running for president, used a four-word campaign agenda, everybody knows, “Make America Great Again.” He led with the agenda. He could have led with “Vote Trump” but he didn’t. He didn’t lead with the brand, he led with the campaign agenda which was, “Make America Great Again” and then he followed with the positioning of, he was the candidate to make America great again. Put aside politics, it’s not important in terms of politics who you vote for, parties, et cetera. It’s important though to understand US presidential elections in order to understand the transcender system.
The first thing is to create the agenda. Now, you’ll hear me say, the agenda needs to be five words or fewer. Turns out that we can now only remember in our short-term memory, five words. Typically, four plus a minus one chunk of information or digit at any point in time. We used to be able to remember seven plus or minus two chunks of information. That’s why the agenda has to be very short, five words or fewer.
The second step after creating the agenda is to communicate the agenda. It’s not just enough to have an agenda and to have a short memorable agenda but you need to repeat the exact same agenda over and over and over again. I explain in the book, the importance of how to do that, the way to communicate it. I describe the four different techniques to do that.
The third step then is once you have an agenda and you communicated the agenda is then to champion the agenda. There’s four different ways that I describe in Brands Don’t Win to champion the agenda. They are the Four A’s, as I call it.
The Four A’s are access, advantages, advangelicals, and awareness. I call them the four A’s because, in the transcender system, we replace the sort of traditional marketing paradigm of the four P’s— many marketers know the four P’s, which include the product, place, the promotion, and the price with the four A’s. These four A’s I describe in the book in detail, examples of how for instance, companies create an advangelical movement. Advangelical is a portmanteau that I have created, putting together probably advocates with evangelicals.
The best transcender companies create a movement. Transcender companies are not seeking to get people to purchase their products, they are seeking to offer a transcendent experience. They don’t want people to buy in, they want people to believe in their agenda. If they believe in their agenda and are inspired by their agenda then they’re more likely to purchase their products. Those are the three proven, practical steps that allow business professionals executives to learn a transcender system in Brands Don’t Win.
Drew Appelbaum: Did you have to make this system up from scratch? Is there anything out there like this?
Stan Bernard: It’s a great question. The short answer is no. I looked through books, I look to talk to people, to find what is a winning system in business other than branding. Because growing up as a young sports fan, I had seen multiple different types of ways in systems for winning. For instance, I experienced Alabama football, starting with the legendary coach, Bear Bryant who had a system for winning many years ago, became the winningest college coach. Using his system, heavily focused on product-player identification development, he then was later succeeded many years later by Nick Saban who had his own two-word agenda for his system. His winning system is called “The Process.” He actually borrowed part of that process from Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots coach who had his own system which is “Do Your Job” and of course, he became the winningest Superbowl coach, with six Superbowl victories.
I knew as a young sports fan growing up that there were winning systems in sports. When I moved into business in my 20s, I was looking for what is the winning system. There had to be a system other than just branding and, quite frankly, I couldn’t find it. There was only one way to win and it was like, almost everybody was brand-washed. They just assume that’s the only way to compete.
Nobody would go to a Baskin Robins instead of getting an opportunity to pick from 31 flavors and pick only vanilla. People don’t go online and look for sneakers and they have one sneaker that they can choose, right? Nobody does that. This is why I really encourage my clients and business professionals to break out of this brand prison and look at a different way to win.
Because I couldn’t find a way to win that was unique and different from the ancient 3,000-year-old branding approach, I had to create it. I created the transcender system and I have been continuing to create this system. The system is dynamic, it is constantly evolving, it’s constantly getting better, competition never rests. I am always looking for new unique ways to win, and the transcender system— one of the beauties of the transcender system is that it is a system that’s dynamic. It’s flexible and you can basically and continually improve upon the system because you play your own game. That’s the essence of the transcender system; you play a game only you can win. That’s what makes it unique.
I did create this system, I did base it, ironically, not on sports, not on business but on politics. For instance, Obama’s election 2008; to me, there’s many different presidential elections that represent examples of how the transcender system is used in politics but I think the 2008 Barack Obama presidential election is probably the best example because he does the three things that I recommend in the transcender system. He creates the agenda, he communicates the agenda and he champions the agenda with four winning types of actions.
Traditional Branding vs. Transcender
Drew Appelbaum: When you choose to adopt the strategy for your company, I just love to know, is it a marketing play, or is this a complete company rebrand?
Stan Bernard: It’s the latter. This is absolutely a corporate-lot approach. The traditionalist approach— which is what I refer to as branding— to counter or to contrast that with the transcender approach. The traditionalist way of branding is a marketing and sales approach. For the most part, marketing and salespeople are responsible for the brand and the branding process. The rest of the company really is not that involved typically.
In a transcender system, it’s totally different. Every single employee, every single function, every single market, the geographic market has to not only buy into but believe in and repeat the campaign agenda. This is a cross-disciplinary, cross-functional, cross-geographic approach to competing. This is not strictly only for marketing sales representatives, which is why in Brands Don’t Win, this book is literally for any business professional of any type across any industry, across any type of product. That is products, services, technologies, other offerings and it’s also cross-geographic across any number of geographic markets. I’ve used this system everywhere from Japan to Australia, South Africa to Russia, all parts of Europe, the Middle East, much of the South American continent, as well as of course the US and Canada.
This is a comprehensive system for competing. Everything a company does needs to align with and support a campaign agenda. A classic example to me is Amazon. Everything Amazon does follows and supports Jeff Bezos’s two-word campaign agenda, which is, “customer obsession.” Amazon doesn’t want with branding. If you look at the side of the trucks that deliver Amazon products, they don’t even say the brand name Amazon. Why? Because Jeff Bezos was never playing the brand game. Jeff Bezos, from the very beginning 25 years ago, was playing a game he called “customer obsession”. It was all about the customers and then he positioned the brand Amazon as the world’s most customer-centric company.
For instance, if you go to the Amazon website and look at their leadership principles, the number one leadership principle for Amazon is customer obsession. Jeff Bezos has repeatedly said that is the number one reason that Amazon wins, customer obsession, that two-word campaign agenda. He does not and has never, to my knowledge, ever said Amazon wins because of its brand.
Drew Appelbaum: You mentioned Amazon and you actually have a lot of case studies in the book that you are showcasing leading transcending brands out there. Besides Amazon, can you just mention maybe a few other of the brands that you talk about in the book, and is there one other case besides Amazon? I know you spoke to a lot of [political] elections as well but anything else of one real case scenario that comes to mind that you like to talk about?
Stan Bernard: Yes, so I actually have utilized 16 different case studies in the book. These include companies ranging from product companies, service companies, technology companies. It includes companies in the US and outside the US and I’d like to refer to these companies not as brand companies but as transcender companies because they play their own game, rise above the competitive fray, and ultimately force their competitors to react to them.
I would say that one of the classic case studies in the book that perhaps best demonstrates a transcender system is actually Starbucks. Most people absolutely know Starbucks. They know the Starbucks brand but interestingly, that’s not how Starbucks wins. Starbucks does not win with branding, they actually tried to win with branding. For the first 16 years, the coffee chain basically used their corporate brand name, their corporate logo, and their branded coffee and coffee beans.
Unfortunately, they were not winning. They were only adding one store per year. In 1997, Howard Schultz buys the coffee chain and says, “We’re not going to play the brand in the coffee game, we’re going to change the game.” He changed the game to his three-word agenda of “The third place.” “We wanted Starbucks to become the third place between home and work in America” – that is why you often see a Starbucks on one side of the highway on the way to work and on directly on the opposite side of the highway on the way home from work.
Starbucks doesn’t win with its brand, it wins with its campaign agenda and everything Starbucks does is about the third place. In order to have the third place, Starbucks made sure that they have large stores that are strategically placed. They want people to come in there and not grab a cup of coffee, they want you to grab a chair. Hang out, we have large comfortable chairs, tables, meet with your friends on your way to work, meet with your business colleagues on the way home from work. We want you to feel extremely comfortable here— which is why they spend more on training their employees than they do on marketing the brand, which is unusual compared to traditional companies. They make sure the baristas are very welcoming. They want you to stay and spend time at Starbucks on the way to work and on the way home from work.
Once they did that, Starbucks went from adding one store per year to adding 1,350 stores per year. 1.350 times the growth. Starbucks is the world’s largest coffee chain with over 31,000 stores across 80 countries serving well over 100 million customers each year. This company has basically become the dominant player by using a transcender system. They are three times the size of Dunkin Donuts, their nearest competitor. Dunkin Donuts spends twice as much on advertising and branding in the US as Starbucks and yet Starbucks sells three times more coffee.
When Starbucks went global, they did not do a global advertising brand campaign for the first 18 years. Why? Because Starbucks doesn’t win with branding, they win with their three-word campaign agenda of “The third place.” I think they’re a classic example because they went from being a brand company that wasn’t winning despite using the branded approach to a winning transcender company by using the transcender system.
The Transcender System Is A Change In Mindset
Drew Appelbaum: I mean, that’s just impressive right there. That is such a great case study and when somebody reads the book and they bring it back to their company, or maybe they own their own company, and they say, “Okay, cool. We’re going to do this.” What are the first steps that people can take to apply this program to their business?
Stan Bernard: Drew, I think it’s important what you just said, which is sometimes you have large companies and you have sometimes startup companies, the transcender system is for all different types of companies no matter what size. I have used this for one-person startups all the way through to many Fortune 500 companies, okay? This system can work for any size company and interestingly, it actually helps level the playing field because the transcender system uses more of a political playbook than a product playbook. It also uses more of a political campaign than a military campaign.
In a traditional brand world, typically the bigger brand companies that could spend much more on advertising, promotions, and sales reps usually beat smaller companies. The transcender system levels the playing field. It’s no longer about a military campaign with just overwhelming numbers of advertisements and promotions and sales reps, it is now a political campaign. It’s basically who can own the airwaves— which doesn’t cost a lot of money. It doesn’t require a lot of sales reps, it doesn’t require a lot of advertising and promotions. So, this system can be used for any sized company and it is very much one that levels the playing field.
Let’s talk about how can you actually start using and applying this system. Well, the simple way is to read the book. Honestly, Brands Don’t Win, describes, as I said, the three steps. It goes into 16 different case studies, the book is broken out in ways where you could read one chapter at a time to learn a certain aspect of the transcender system, or you could read one of the three sections, such as the create the agenda section or the communicate the agenda section. Or you could read it all at once, so that is really the first way to do it.
The second way to use this is to basically work with your colleagues and explain that there’s a way to win that goes way beyond branding. Part of this book and part of the transcender system is a change in mindset. People have to understand you do not, I repeat, you do not have to play a brand game. You do not have to play the exact same game pretty much that every company on the planet is playing and has been playing for over a thousand years. We have brands over a thousand years old particularly in Europe, so that’s the first step— to realize you can break out of the brand jail. You can play a different game and more importantly, you can create and play a game only your company can win.
That first step is really the mindset shift and I think this is why it’s important for individuals and professionals throughout a company to start to adopt this approach. Ideally, your executives adopt this approach starting with your CEO and your other C-suite executives because their leadership could be extremely helpful in bringing the transcender system to the entire company but it doesn’t require an executive. I have seen people middle managements and all different types of roles, everything from human resources to supply chain to legal, regulatory product development as well as of course, commercial, sales, marketing, et cetera individuals who adopt this system, work with their colleagues to understand the system, either by explaining to them or giving them a copy of the book, then that particular function or that particular brand or product team starts to use the transcender system.
Other people within the organization see the results because usually, you get not just slight competitive advantages using the transcender system, you get transcendent advantages. Dramatically greater advantages over your competition. For example, Tesla doesn’t have one or two small differentiators for its brand. Tesla has numerous advantages for its cars that allow it to transcend and become the single most valuable car company in the world, at one point more valuable in the next six biggest companies in the world. Why? Because they have so many transcendent advantages.
Once people understand that this allows a brand team, a market team, or any other particular functional team at a company to take off and get that— what I call— transcender take off, then other professionals of the company see it and then they want to use it, they want to adopt it. This is what I call the advangelical movement. It happens within a company first. You get these people that don’t just buy into the system but believe in it. Why? Because they see how powerful the transcender system is.
For example, I had a client recently, they had a better product than their competitor, a much better product but they were losing because they were playing the traditional brand game. Their competitor was actually quite frankly playing more of a transcender game. I worked with them to do a transcender workshop and within one year after executing their campaign agenda— meaning they created the agenda, they had a workshop, they then started communicating agendas to the marketplace, and they executed using the four winning actions that is the championing of the agenda. Within 12 months, that company had an increase in sales in one year of 30 percent after having been flat for the previous five years. That 30 percent for this particular brand represented over 600 million dollars in sales.
Transcender companies do not come to the market to compete. They do not come to the market even to win. Transcender companies come to market with the transcender system to dominate. This is a totally different mindset. They are not looking to differentiate their brand to hopefully get one or two or three percent more market share. No, these companies are out to own their market or markets.
Peloton is a classic example. Peloton doesn’t try to differentiate its branded Peloton bike or Bike plus. No, that’s not what they do. Peloton plays its own game. Their game, their original game was to offer a world-class indoor cycling studio experience. It wasn’t talking about the slight detail advantages their bike had or being a carbon steel frame or a magnetic resent flywheel. No, that’s not what they did. They were all about creating a world-class indoor cycling studio experience, a transcendent experience. They weren’t trying to get you to buy a product, they wanted you to believe in their campaign agenda. Everybody knows that if you talk to any Peloton owner or Peloton rider, they will go on and on and on about how great the Peloton experience is, not the bike. Why? Because Peloton is basically positioning their company as the transcendent Peloton experience.
Interestingly, they’re not just trying to win with home exercise equipment. That’s not even their primary market. Their primary market are health clubs, cycling studios, gyms; that’s who they’re going after. Peloton is not trying to just gradually or slightly get ahead of their competitors, they’re trying to own and dominate at least two markets. That’s the transcender mindset, using the transcender system.
Drew Appelbaum: Stan, I feel like I can hear these stories all day because they are so interesting and they’re such big brands and you always go back to, “Well, how did they do it?” Plus, you just blew my mind earlier with the fact that branding has been around for a thousand years and that there’s companies out there even that you said a thousand years old. I mean, that’s just incredible.
I just want to stop you real quick and just say that I know we just touched the surface of the book but I love that you just wrote this book to just completely change the marketing game and bring it into the 21st century, so congratulations on having your book published.
Stan Bernard: Thank you. I think it is very important for people to understand that this is not just changing the marketing game, this is changing the business game. The transcender system changes how businesses compete in every respect.
I think it’s important for readers to know that the transcender system is true paradigm shift. What exactly is a paradigm shift? We all use the term, what do we mean by it? We mean that you’re replacing the old view, which is what I call the traditionalist brand system with a new view of the world, which is what I call a transcender-winning system. It is almost like a traditionalist brand world was the flat world and the transcender system world is the round world. This is a true revolution, I repeat, a revolution in how companies compete. The sooner business executives and professionals adopt this approach, the sooner they will see dramatically better product launches, increased profits, and increased sales. I have seen it with over 150 companies I’ve worked with across six continents involving over 60 countries. The transcender system works. It’s the world’s most powerful system for winning.
Drew Appelbaum: Well, Stan, this has been a pleasure and I’m excited for people to check out the book. Everyone, the book is called Brands Don’t Win and you could find it on Amazon. Stan, besides checking out the book, is there anywhere else where people can connect with you?
Stan Bernard: Absolutely. I would encourage people to go to brandsdontwin.com, the website for the book. On the website, you have the opportunity to learn more about the book, to get a free chapter of the book, to purchase the book, and also to contact me and my firm, Bernard Associates, directly if you are interested in learning more about the transcender system. More importantly, while the book absolutely offers the fundamentals of the transcender system, for those business executives and professionals that want to go way beyond the fundamentals and really learn how to apply and use the transcender system, my firm offers transcender system workshops, seminars, and speaking engagements. I’d be happy to talk to you and your colleagues more about the transcender system and how to apply it in order to help you and your company and its products win.
Drew Appelbaum: Well, Stan, thank you so much for giving us some of your time today and coming on our show and just want to wish you the best of luck with your new book.
Stan Bernard: Thanks very much, Drew, I appreciate the time.